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Nature's Cruel Stepdames: Murderous Women in the Street Literature of Seventeenth Century England.

Susan C. Staub. Nature's Cruel Stepdames: Murderous Women in the Street Literature of Seventeenth Century England.

Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2005. xii + 356 pp. index. illus. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0-8207-0356-7.

Over the past decade, the print culture of early modern England has been the subject of considerable inquiry, with scholars paying increasing attention to the prose pamphlet, a genre that, like other street literature, catered to a variety of audiences spanning a broad social spectrum. By the 1580s, the market for inexpensive reading matter had become lucrative for London printers and booksellers. The proliferation of printed texts coextended with a number of social developments, including an increase in literacy and improvements in print technology that made print more affordable and more profitable. Pamphlets and other print genres such as almanacs, sermons, and ballads could be purchased cheaply from street-sellers, and covered a wide variety of topics ranging from foreign wars and Reformation polemics to natural calamities and sensational crimes. Although a number of recent book-length studies have focused on the early modern crime pamphlet, only a few of the texts have been reproduced in modern editions. In Nature's Cruel Stepdames, Susan Staub brings together eleven seventeenth-century pamphlets, published from 1604-92, that exploit the widespread fascination in early modern England with sensational "true" accounts of domestic crimes perpetrated by women. The edition is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on early modern popular, non-literary prose.

Although many crime pamphlets of the period were published anonymously, most of the authors seem to have been clergymen. Invariably, the title pages assert the authors' intent to instruct readers in virtue, yet "even religious figures wrote because these stories were so titillating" (6). The authored pamphlets included in the collection are Henry Goodcole's The Adultresses Funerall Day and Natures Cruel Step-Dames: or, Matchlesse Monsters of the Female Sex; Gilbert Dugdale's A True Discourse Of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell; Thomas Brewer's The Bloudy Mother, Richard Watkins's Newes from the Dead. Or a True and Exact Narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Greene; and N. Partridge and J. Sharp's Blood for Blood. Five of the pamphlets included were published anonymously: they are Deeds Against Nature, and Monsters by kinde; Murther, Murther. Or, A bloody Relation how Anne Hamton ... by poyson murthered her deare husband; A Hellish Murder Committed by a French Midwife; A pittilesse Mother, That most unnaturally at one time, murthered two of her owne Children; and Fair Warning to Murderers of Infants. In transcribing the texts, Staub has conservatively modernized and carefully annotated them, making them accessible both to scholars and students of the early modern period, as well as to readers interested in literary, social, and economic history, women's studies, and cultural studies.

In a comprehensive and informative introduction, Staub situates the domestic-crime pamphlet within its sociocultural contexts. Notwithstanding the proliferation of the figure of the criminal woman in the pamphlet literature, the actual number of violent crimes committed by women was small; yet new laws increasingly made it easier to prosecute women for committing adultery and infanticide and for bearing illegitimate children. The crime pamphlets engage early modern society's ambivalence toward the construction of ideal womanhood at a time when anxiety about women's power and sexuality was increasing. Depicting women who murder their husbands and children "as both powerful and weak, sympathetic and sinister," the texts suggest that domestic conflict marks a shift, "however dubious," in women's social status, and that their portrayal of women executed for their actions indicates a new awareness of them "as individuals" (8).

In selecting the pamphlets for inclusion in the volume, Staub's aim was to combine representative texts with those that recount events in distinctive ways. Deeds Against Nature, for example, is a fairly conventional rendering of an unmarried mother's murder of her newborn child, and Murther, Murther typically tells of a husband's murder by his wife, whose violence is portrayed as a shocking act of rebellion against social and economic subservience. Other pamphlets relate their subject matter through less conventional approaches. A Hellish Murder Committed by a French Midwife tells the popular story of Mary Hobry, an exceptionally strong woman who strangled her husband and cut his body into pieces. The pamphlet differs from its analogues (another pamphlet and two broadside ballads) by taking the form of an actual legal deposition concerning the crime. Although A Hellish Murder records the woman's voice and presents household conflict in more graphic detail than do its analogues, it ultimately contains the woman's transgression by muffling her confession. In Dugdale's A True Discourse Of ... Elizabeth Caldwell, the murdering wife's public voice eclipses that of the author, and the pamphlet exposes the oversimplification of the ideal of wifely servility by publicizing and empowering the criminal woman at the same time as it applauds her punishment.

Staub's goal was also to include texts that encompass what early modern discourses commonly regard as the major stages of a woman's life: namely, maid, wife, and widow. To these three stages Staub adds that of mother, a role that the crime pamphlets emphasize. The first section of the edition comprises stories of husband murder (a form of petty treason), a crime that receives the most attention in popular print genres because together with high treason it constitutes the gravest threat to social stability. The texts in the second section are accounts of married mothers who murder their children. The murdering married mother is the "most problematic" of the female criminals in the pamphlets (16). Although the authors generally portray the figure sympathetically, often explaining her criminality as arising from her profound concern for her children's well-being, they also present her actions as illustrating a struggle for power within the family. The third section deals with the unmarried woman who commits infanticide. She is from the lower classes, usually a servant, who murders her infant in order to maintain her employment and reputation. Alongside the conventional depiction of the figure as monstrous, the texts foreground her marginalization and powerlessness, but without critiquing the social hierarchy.

The figure of the widow is included in sections 2 and 3. Fair Warning to Murderers of Infants, which reports on the infanticide committed by the widowed mother Mary Goodenough, is included with the texts on married women because, despite the woman's criminal act, the pamphlet stresses her "undying sense of maternal duty" as illustrated in the letter which she leaves to her surviving children. The pamphlet also confers on the figure a certain "agency and power" denied to the unmarried woman (16-17). Natures Cruell Step-Dames, an account of the widow Elizabeth Barnes's murder of her daughter, is included in the section on the unmarried woman because it exploits many features of the pamphlets on unmarried infanticides, including the suggestion that poverty, social exclusion, "and a culture of shame" are motivating factors in the crime (17).

The final section is devoted to the attempts by the popular press to explain the wondrous story of Anne Greene, the executed infanticide who revived during her autopsy. Of the five extant accounts of the event, Staub includes Watkins's Newes from the Dead, which inscribes the same social anxieties of other crime pamphlets, but which utilizes a unique narrative strategy. Watkins complexifies the fantastic events he records by employing a tone that is both serious and analytical, and by framing the account within a scientific discussion of the female body and its functions. Confronted with a situation that eludes homiletic explanations, however, the pamphlet reconstructs the unruly woman "into a socially acceptable version of proper womanhood" (18).

Providing vivid and sometimes complex accounts of the patriarchal household in turmoil, the crime pamphlets share an interest in policing the transgressive woman, and in so doing expose the cracks in the social order they uphold.


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Author:Comensoli, Viviana
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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